Thursday, October 29, 2009

Asian Art Museum-Burma and Siam (or Thailand)

The current exhibit up at the Asian is different in many ways from the preceding exhibit - different countries (naturally) different histories -- especially during the crucial 19th century period of colonial expansion -- and a completely different artistic aesthetic. We have all heard the old proverb, "All that glitters is not gold." But in the Emerald cities exhibit (named as a subtle tribute to the Emerald Buddha Temple in Bangkok), all that glitters is gold, layered with gems, sequins, mirrors and scalloped into images of flamboyant exuberance. The following is a bit of historical background, taken from the museum's website and iTunes podcasts which makes the show even more interesting. Unlike Japan, which modernized rapidly, built a powerful navy and army and was conducting its own wars of expansion against China and Russia, both Burma and Siam had to fight off European colonial designs on their territory.

Most people know about Siam from the movie "The King and I. " While Anna Leonowens was an imaginative writer, her portrayal of King Mongkut was colored by her Victorian prejudices. She and the king most assuredly did not fall in love and the people of Siam still resent the way he was portrayed in her book, the play and the ensuing Hollywood movies.

"King Mongkut or Rama IV (1804-1868) was a Buddhist monk for many years before succeeding to the throne in 1851. As a monk, Mongkut studied widely, even learning English. He traveled around the country, becoming acquainted with ordinary people in a way most princes never could have. Eventually, he undertook a reform of Thai Buddhist doctrine and practice. As king, he modernized many aspects of his kingdom’s life while successfully fending off threats from the British and other European colonialists."

The Burmese were not so lucky. Burma is another country that seems to only make the news when there's yet another economic or human rights violation connected with the current regime. What makes this even more tragic is how hard the Burmese fought to gain their independence from the British, who annexed the country in the 19th century and turned it into a province of the Raj.

"In 1824-1826, however, the Burmese lost the first of three wars to the British, and had to give up their recent conquests. The kingdom and its leaders were stunned. After being defeated a second time in 1852, and being forced to cede the vital port city of Rangoon and the entire southern section of their realm, they rallied and set out on a program of modernization, introducing Western knowledge and technology."

"As part of the effort to turn over a new leaf, King Mindon (1853-1878) founded a new capital, formally extolled as “City of Gems” and “Land of Victory,” but known to outsiders as Mandalay. The building of a new capital was a bonanza for artists and artisans, and a number of the art objects displayed here must have been made for Mandalay."

"All of the efforts of King Mindon and his court fell short. The next king floundered, and in 1885 the Burmese lost a final war with the British. The king was exiled, and Burma reduced to a colony—just one part of British India. While Buddhist ritual objects were of course still needed, the demand for adornments for courtiers and palaces disappeared overnight. Patronage was disrupted, but artists found new customers among rich merchants and foreigners."

Kipling could write of the British soldier, looking wistfully toward Mandalay:

By the old Moulmein Pagoda, lookin' eastward to the sea,
There's a Burma girl a-settin', and I know she thinks o' me;
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Come you back to Mandalay,
Where the old Flotilla lay:
Can't you 'ear their paddles chunkin' from Rangoon to Mandalay?
On the road to Mandalay,
Where the flyin'-fishes play,
An' the dawn comes up like thunder outer China 'crost the Bay!

But the Burmese nationalists most certainly did not want the British there. British rule imposed a ruling class and an economic policy which further oppressed the common people. In fact, they were so hated that some in the Burmese nationalistic movement wanted to ally with the Japanese in WW II, assuming that if the Japanese won that war they would gain their independence. In any case, Burma did gain its independence after WW II but the ensuing decades have been difficult ones, both politically and economically.

Some links:
Orwell's novel of Burma in the 1930's:
Emerald Cities at the Asian: The arts of Siam and Burma-through January 2010

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